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Higher ed board expresses ‘unanimous support’ of USU President Noelle Cockett

Report says she had concerns about football coach’s Latter-day Saint recruiting strategy

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Utah State University President Noelle Cockett speaks during USU’s commencement ceremony at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan on Thursday, May 2, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Board of Higher Education expressed “unanimous support” for Utah State University President Noelle Cockett Friday following independent reviews conducted over remarks she made concerning interim head football coach Frank Maile during a meeting with some members of the football team last month.

The board, after meeting in executive session for nearly two hours, voted to approve this resolution:

“Though some remarks made were interpreted as potential or cultural bias, they were not intended as such. President Cockett has long demonstrated her commitment to make USU a welcoming, nurturing environment for people from all backgrounds.

“Following the findings in this report, the Utah Board of Higher Education, the president’s resource and review team, and the board of trustees will continue to work with President Noelle Cockett to foster an inclusive, safe campus community with open pathways of communication and support. Based on this report and the input of the Utah State University board of trustees, the board expresses its unanimous support for President Cockett.”

The probe was conducted after members of the football team raised concerns about comments Cockett made about Maile’s religious and cultural background during a meeting on Dec. 8, also attended by USU athletic director John Hartwell. Maile is Polynesian and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The comments prompted USU to cancel its game at Colorado State University scheduled for Dec. 12 because of concerns raised by football players about religious and cultural discrimination in the search for a new coach, the university said in a statement at the time.

The investigative report, with portions redacted for privacy reasons, concluded that “neither President Cockett nor Hartwell expressly stated that their ‘primary concern’ about Coach Maile was his religious or cultural background, nor that his background would disqualify him as a coaching candidate.

“Instead, we conclude that the inclusivity concerns raised by President Cockett were designed to promote a discussion with athletes about the degree to which they felt included and welcomed at Utah State.”

Her intent “was not effectively communicated to or understood by the athletes, who genuinely felt that President Cockett’s general concerns about inclusivity expressed or implied reservations about Coach Maile,” said the report, which was released jointly by USU and the Utah System of Higher Education.

The report said Cockett and the players embarked on the meeting “intent on discussing two different topics. The athletes wished to campaign for Coach Maile to be hired as the next head coach at Utah State University; President Cockett wanted to discuss the athletes’ well-being.”

The report continues: “Top of mind for President Cockett was her genuine concern that USU meet its goal of being an inclusive environment for all, a concern informed by the fact that President Cockett perceives the local area as a unique community where some athletes might not feel included. During the Zoom meeting, President Cockett described Logan and Cache Valley as unique communities that can sometimes seem to not be inclusive to outsiders.”

USU released this prepared statement by Cockett following the board’s vote:

“In my attempt as president of USU to connect with the students around a sensitive topic, I have learned this caused some students discomfort,” she said. “It was certainly not my intent for this to result in a negative experience, and for that, I sincerely apologize.” 

Nick Heninger, who played outside linebacker for the Aggies and has been a team spokesman since the December meeting, said the outcome was “unbelievable to me. It looks like there’s nothing changing, right?”

The players want more diverse representation on the university’s trustees and members who are better informed about collegiate athletics, he said.

The players may continue to raise their concerns through their student government, he added. “I mean we just got shafted by the board right now.”

According to the report, Cockett was asked by investigators whether she said during the meeting that she had “concerns” about Maile’s ability to recruit because he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“She responded, ‘Absolutely not.’”

When questioned about the team leadership council’s allegation in the Stadium report that she and Hartwell raised concerns about Maile’s religious and cultural background, Cockett said “That is not an accurate statement,” according to the report. The Stadium refers to a report by Brett McMurphy of “Stadium College Football Insider.”

The investigators’ report said Cockett shared with the attorneys that she met with Maile Nov. 23 on an “unannounced topic.”

“It became clear to President Cockett that Coach Maile had scheduled the meeting to promote his application for the head football coach position. Coach Maile explained his ‘three pillars’ of recruiting, which President Cockett said were, according to Coach Maile: “Utahns, Polynesians and missionaries.”

Cockett said she understood these three pillars to mean that Maile’s recruiting strategy would be heavily focused on Utahns, Polynesians and those serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to the investigators’ report.

Cockett told investigators that Maile’s statement made her “a little worried he would not be inclusive in his recruitment strategy.” When asked if she expressed this concern during the Zoom meeting, Cockett denied doing so, the report states.

The investigators interviewed 30 student athletes.

“In summary, many student athletes recalled that President Cockett at least made reference to religion, including concerns about religious homogeneity in Cache Valley and how that would impact inclusivity. Most seemed to interpret her comments to refer directly or indirectly to Coach Maile. However, we could not clearly establish from the interviews whether President Cockett raised specific concerns about whether Coach Maile’s religious identity would disqualify him as a coach.”

According to the report, 26 of 30 student athletes interviewed recalled references by Cockett about either hiring a coach who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ or Maile’s membership in the church.

Fifteen of those student athletes recalled “an express or implied concern about how Coach Maile’s religious affiliation would impact recruiting.” Some characterized these concerns as being related directly to Maile with statements like, “(She) was concerned about how being a member of the church would affect recruiting” and “President Cockett was unsure if Coach Maile would be able to recruit or connect with student athletes that were not LDS or Polynesian.”

According to a statement released by the university, Cockett has instructed the USU Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to finish a public report survey within the next few months. The task force will also hold virtual focus groups on inclusion during the spring 2021 semester, according to the statement.

Cockett said she looks forward to continuing progress on the diversity and inclusion efforts outlined before the pandemic.

Deans of USU’s eight colleges recently held a unanimous vote of confidence in Cockett, stating, “We know her to be a person of great humanity — kind, considerate, caring, empathic, inclusive, honest, forthright and deeply loyal to the values and aspirations of our beloved university.”

USU board of trustees chairman Jody Burnett, in a prepared statement, said: “We greatly appreciate the student-athletes’ willingness to participate in this external review.”

It continued: “We hear them and acknowledge their concerns. Over the spring semester, the university’s leadership and trustees will continue to address the issues raised by the student athletes during the review.”

The trustees “continue to have great faith and confidence in President Cockett’s leadership of Utah State, including her proactive approach to advancing the institution’s diversity and inclusion goals. We recognize we have much to do in addressing diversity and inclusion issues, and we are committed to doing that work, as a board and as a university community,” Burnett said.

The matter came before the state higher education board because it has the sole authority to hire, evaluate, discipline and terminate presidents of Utah’s public colleges and universities, however they do consult with college and university boards of trustees.

Maile has twice served as interim head coach of the Aggies in recent years, filling in this past season after head coach Gary Anderson was fired midseason. Maile was in his fifth year as the Aggies’ assistant head coach. He also played for the Aggies as an undergraduate.

Earlier this week, he was hired as the new assistant head coach and defensive line coach at Boise State University, a USU conference foe.

Cockett has served as president of USU since 2017, selected by the then-board of regents in 2016 after a nationwide search. She is the 16th president of the university and its first female president.

Much of Cockett’s professional career has been at USU, serving as the university’s executive vice president and provost for about three years prior to her selection as president. Previously, she was dean of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences and vice president for Extension and Agriculture at USU. She joined the university in 1990 as an associate professor.

Cockett grew up on a beef cattle ranch in eastern Montana and earned a bachelor of science degree in animal science from Montana State University and her master’s and doctorate degrees in animal breeding and genetics from Oregon State University. She developed an internationally recognized research program in sheep genomics.

In an earlier interview, Dave Woolstenhulme, Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education, said Cockett has successfully worked for decades at USU, a public university that is part of the Utah System of Higher Education.

In an earlier statement, Cockett said she was “devastated” that her comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background.

Some national surveys say 70% of USU students are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint. Cockett is not, Woolstenhulme said.